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Stolorow, R.D. (1997). A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action. : By Esther Thelen and Linda Smith. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press. 1994. Pp. 376 + xxiii.. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 78:620-622.

(1997). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 78:620-622

A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action. : By Esther Thelen and Linda Smith. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press. 1994. Pp. 376 + xxiii.

Review by:
Robert D. Stolorow

A new scientific paradigm has been evolving from the investigation of phenomena that have variously been called dynamic, non-linear, self-organising, or chaotic systems. With origins in physics, chemistry, and mathematics, this new perspective has been applied to the study of complex biological systems and is being employed in the search for common principles underlying the behaviour of such diverse phenomena as chemical reactions, clouds, forests, developing embryos and children. Dynamic systems theory, as explicated by Thelen & Smith, is centrally concerned with conceptualising the process of developmental change, that is, the generation of ‘emergent order and complexity: how structure and patterns arise from the cooperation of many individual parts’ (p. xiii). In accounting for the ‘messy, fluid, context-sensitive’ (p. xvi) nature of the developmental process, this framework, as I will attempt to show in my review, is exceptionally well suited to serve as a source of guiding metaphors for contemporary psychoanalysis.

A cardinal feature of Thelen & Smith’s dynamic systems approach to development is that it categorically rejects teleological conceptions of preordained end-states towards which developmental trajectories are presumed to aim. Accordingly,

Development does not ‘know’ where it is going from the start … There is no end-state other than the end of life itself … Development is the outcome of the self-organizing processes of continuously active living systems (p. 44, my italics).

Also rejected is the idea, prominent in much psychoanalytic developmental theory, that development unfolds according to some predetermined schema or epigenetic master plan:


Although behavior and development appear structured, there are no structures. Although behavior and development appear rule-driven, there are no rules. There is complexity. There is a multiple, parallel, and continuously dynamic interplay of perception and action, and a system that, by its thermodynamic nature, seeks certain stable solutions. These

Copyright © Institute of Psycho-Analysis, London, 1997

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